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In the beginning

About 3.6 million years ago, a party of two or three trekked across the plain at Laetoli near Olduvai Gorge in northern Tanzania, leaving their footprints in a blanket of volcanic ash. The prints were still there when archaeologist Mary Leakey uncovered them in 1978. She pegged them as the steps of our earliest known ancestors – hominids known as Australopithecines, whose remains have been found only in East Africa.

About two million years ago, the human family tree split, giving rise to homo habilis, a meat-eating creature with a larger brain who used crude stone tools, the remains of whom have been found around Olduvai Gorge. By 1.8 million years ago, homo erectus had evolved, leaving bones and axes for archaeologists to find at ancient lakeside sites throughout East Africa and around the world.

What is today Tanzania was peopled by waves of migration. Rock paintings dating back 10, 000 years have been found around Kondoa. These are believed to have been made by clans of nomadic hunter-gatherers who spoke a language similar to that of southern Africa’s Khoisan. Between 3000 and 5000 years ago, they were joined by small bands of Cushitic-speaking farmers and cattle-herders moving down from what is today Ethiopia. The Iraqw who live around Lake Manyara trace their ancestry to this group of arrivals. The majority of modern Tanzanians are descendants of Bantu-speaking settlers who began a gradual, centuries-long shift eastward from the Niger delta around 1000 BC, arriving in East Africa in the 1st century AD. The most recent influx of migrants occurred between the 15th and 18th centuries when Nilotic-speaking pastoralists from southern Sudan moved into northern Tanzania and the Rift Valley. The modern Maasai trace their roots to this stream.

By the 1st century AD, the outside world had reached the coast of East Africa, known as ‘Rhapta’ to ancient mariners. Merchant vessels from southern Arabia and the Red Sea were loaded with ivory and slaves. With the traders came Islam, established along the coast between the 8th and 10th centuries AD. By the early 14th century, Kilwa had been transformed by Yemeni settlers from a fishing village into a major centre of commerce. When Moroccan traveller Ibn Battuta visited in 1331, he found a flourishing town of 10, 000-20, 000 residents, with a grand palace, mosque, inn and slave market.

The first European to set foot in Tanzania was Portuguese sailor Vasco de Gama, who fumbled his way along the coast in 1498 in search of the Orient. Portuguese traders kept to the coast, and were driven out two centuries later by Omani Arabs. The Omanis took control of Kilwa and Zanzibar and set up governors in coastal towns on the mainland. Traders from the coast plied the caravan routes through the interior to the Great Lakes, flying the blood red banner of the Sultan of Zanzibar. They bought ivory and slaves in exchange for cheap cloth and firearms. The traders carried with them virulent strains of small pox and cholera as well as guns. By the late 19th century, when Europe cast a covetous eye on Africa, East Africa was weakened by disease and violence.

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European control

The romantic reports of early-19th-century European travellers to East Africa such as Richard Burton, John Speke, David Livingstone and Henry Morton Stanley caught the attention of a young German adventurer in the late 19th century. In 1885, not bothering to obtain his government’s endorsement, Carl Peters set up a Company for German Colonization. From Zanzibar, he travelled into the interior on the mainland, shooting his way across the plains and collecting the signatures of African chiefs on a stack of blank treaty forms he had brought with him. In Berlin, Chancellor Bismarck approved the acquisition of African territory after the fact, much to the consternation of the British. They had established informal rule over Zanzibar through control of the Sultan of Zanzibar and had their eye on the rich, fertile lands around Kilimanjaro and the Great Lakes.

In late 1886, East Africa was sliced into ‘spheres of influence’ by agreement between the British and the Germans, formalised in 1890. The frontier ran west from the coast to Lake Victoria along the modern Kenya–Tanzania border. Needless to say, the Africans weren’t consulted on the agreement. Nor was the Sultan of Zanzibar. The Germans parked a gunboat in Zanzibar harbour until he signed over his claim to the mainland.

The colonial economy was constructed to draw wealth out of the region and into the coffers of the colonial occupiers. Little investment was made in improving the quality of life or opportunities for local people. Peasants were compelled to grow cash crops for export and many were forcibly moved onto plantations. The Maji Maji Rebellion against German rule in 1905 was brutally suppressed – villages burned, crops ruined, cattle and grain stolen.

The British took over the administration of the territory of Tanganyika following WWI under the auspices of first the League of Nations then the Trusteeship Council of the UN. To assist in its own post-war economic recovery effort, Britain maintained compulsory cultivation and enforced settlement policies. The development of a manufacturing sector was actively discouraged by Britain, who wanted to maintain the Tanzanian market for its own goods. Likewise, very few Africans were hired into the civil service.

In 1948, a group of young Africans formed the Tanganyika African Association to protest colonial policies. By 1953, the organisation was re-named the Tanganyika African National Union (TANU), led by a young teacher named Julius Nyerere. Its objective became national liberation. In the end, the British decamped from Tanganyika and Zanzibar rather abruptly in 1961 and 1963 respectively. This was due at least as much to a growing European sentiment that empires were too expensive to maintain as to recognition of the fundamental right of Africans to freedom from subjugation.

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Tanganyikans embraced independence with jubilant optimism for the future. However, Tanganyika embarked on the project of nation-building with few of the resources necessary for the task. The national treasury was depleted. The economy was weak and undeveloped, with virtually no industry. The British trustees had made little effort to prepare the territory for statehood. In 1961, there were a total of 120 African university graduates in the country – including two lawyers, two engineers and 12 medical doctors.

Faced with this set of circumstances, the first autonomous government of Tanganyika, led by the 39-year-old Julius Nyerere, chose continuity over radical transformation of the economic or political structure. TANU accepted the Westminster-style parliament proposed by the British. It committed to investing in education and a gradual Africanization of the civil service. In the meantime, expatriates (often former British colonial officers) would be used to staff the government bureaucracy.

As detailed by political scientist Cranford Pratt, the Nyerere government’s early plans were drawn up on the assumption that substantial foreign assistance would be forthcoming, particularly from Britain. This was not the case. Britain pled poverty at the negotiating table. Then Tanzania’s relations with all three of its major donors – Britain, USA and West Germany – soured over political issues in the 1960s. These issues were, namely, Nyerere’s disgust at Britain’s acquiescence to the Unilateral Declaration of Independence of white-ruled Rhodesia, the American role in stoking the civil war in Congo, and West German opposition to the East German embassy on Zanzibar. The new country was left scrambling for funds to stay afloat during the first rocky years of liberation. While grappling with fixing roads, running hospitals and educating the country’s youth, the government managed to diffuse an army mutiny over wages in 1964. When Zanzibar erupted in violent revolution in January 1964 just weeks after achieving independence from Britain, Nyerere skilfully co-opted its potentially destabilising forces by giving island politicians a prominent role in a newly proclaimed United Republic of Tanzania, created from the union of Tanganyika with Zanzibar in April 1964.

Nyerere grew dismayed by what he saw as the development of an elite urban class in Tanzania. In 1966, a group of University of Dar es Salaam students marched to the State House in their academic gowns to protest the compulsory National Service the government had introduced. It required all university graduates to spend two years working in rural areas following their graduation. Nyerere was livid.

‘I shall take nobody – not a single person – into this National Service whose spirit is not in it… So make your choice. “I’m not going, I’m not going” – I’m not going to spend public money to educate anybody who says National Service is a prison… Is this what the citizens of this country worked for?… You are demanding a pound of flesh; everybody is demanding a pound of flesh except the poor peasant. What kind of country are we building?’

He ordered the students home to their rural areas for an indefinite period, which ended up being five months. Before they left, he declared that, as an example to the educated elite, he was going to cut his own salary – and those of all senior government officials – by 20%, which he did.

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Ujamaa – tanzania’s grand experiment

The events of the first few years following independence – the lack of assistance from abroad, rumblings of civil strife at home and the nascent development of a privileged class amid continuing mass poverty – lead Nyerere to re-evaluate the course his government had charted for the nation.

Since his student days, Nyerere had pondered the meaning of democracy for Africa. In 1962, he published an essay entitled Ujamaa [familyhood]: The Basis of African Socialism. In it he set out his belief that the personal accumulation of wealth in the face of widespread poverty was anti-social. Africa should strive to create a society based on mutual assistance and economic as well as political equality, such as he claimed had existed for centuries before European colonisation.

In 1967, the TANU leadership met in the northern town of Arusha, where they approved a radical new plan for Tanzania, drafted by Nyerere. What became known as the Arusha Declaration outlined the Tanzanian government’s commitment to a socialist approach to development, further articulated in a series of subsequent policy papers. The government vowed to reduce its dependence on foreign aid and instead foster an ethos of self-reliance in Tanzanian society. Throughout the country, people turned out to help their neighbours build new schools, repair roads and to plant and harvest food to sell for medical supplies. Nyerere and his ministers made a regular practice of grabbing a shovel and pitching in. To prevent government becoming a trough where bureaucrats and party members could amass personal wealth, Nyerere passed a Leadership Code. Among other things, it prohibited government officials from holding shares in a private company, employing domestic staff or buying real estate to rent out for profit.

The Arusha Declaration also announced the government takeover of industry and banking. It curtailed foreign direct investment and stated that the government would itself invest in manufacturing enterprises that could produce substitutes for imported goods. All land was henceforth to be common property, managed by the state. The government strove to provide free education for every child. School children were taught to identify themselves as proud Tanzanians with a shared language – Swahili – rather than just members of one of over 200 ethnic groups residing within the country’s borders.

Nyerere himself was fascinated by Chinese economic development strategies, but dismissed Western fears that Tanzania was toying with doctrinaire Marxism, either Chinese- or Soviet-style. He argued that Tanzanians ‘have no more need of being “converted” to socialism than we have of being “taught” democracy. Both are rooted in our own past – in the traditional society that produced us.’ Nyerere’s vision was heady stuff in the late 1960s and was enthusiastically embraced not only by the Tanzanian public, but by a body of Western academics and by aid donors from both East and West. Several of his policies nonetheless provoked the consternation of even his most ardent supporters abroad. In 1965, TANU voted to scrap the multiparty model of democracy bequeathed to it by Britain. As a consequence, Tanzania became a one-party state. Nyerere argued that democracy was not synonymous with multiparty politics and that the new country’s challenges were so great that everyone had to work together. He advocated freedom of speech and the discussion of ideas, but banned opposition parties, saying ‘The only socially defensible use of “we” is that which includes the whole society.’ Voters were given a choice of candidates, but they were all TANU party members. Furthermore, Nyerere authorised the detention of some individuals judged to be agitating against the best interests of the state. His defenders say he did his best to hold together a sometimes unruly cabinet and a country at a time when all over Africa newly independent states were succumbing to civil war and dictatorships. Critics say he turned a blind eye to violations of fundamental civil liberties.

Perhaps the most controversial of all government policies adopted post-Arusha was ‘villagisation’. The vast majority of Tanzanians lived in the countryside, and the Arusha Declaration envisioned agriculture as the ­engine of economic growth. A massive increase in production was to be accomplished through communal farming, such as Nyerere argued was the practice in the old days. Beginning in 1967, Tanzanians were encouraged to reorganise themselves into communal villages where they would work the fields together for the good of the nation. Some did, but only a handful of cooperative communities were established voluntarily.

In 1974, the government commenced the forcible relocation of 80% of the population, creating massive disruptions in national agricultural production. The scheme itself, however, suffered from a multiplicity of problems. The new land was often infertile. Necessary equipment was unavailable. People didn’t want to work communally; they wanted to provide for their own families first. Government prices for crops were set too low. To paraphrase analyst Goran Hyden, the peasantry responded by retreating into subsistence farming – just growing their own food. National agricultural production and revenue from cash crop exports plummeted.

Summing up the results of the Arusha Declaration policies, Nyerere candidly admitted that the government had made some mistakes. However, he also noted progress towards social equality: the ratio between the highest salaries and the lowest paid narrowed from 50:1 in 1961 to around 9:1 in 1976. Despite a meagre colonial inheritance, Tanzania made great strides in education and healthcare. Under Nyerere’s leadership, it forged a cohesive national identity. With the exception of occasional isolated eruptions of civil strife on Zanzibar, it has also enjoyed internal peace and stability throughout its existence.

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Aid darling to delinquent & back

Post–Arusha Declaration Tanzania was the darling of the aid donor community. It was the largest recipient of foreign aid in sub-Saharan Africa throughout the 1970s and was the testing ground for every new-fangled development theory that came along. An army of expatriate advisors oversaw hundreds of development projects.

As the economy spiralled downward in the late 1970s and early ’80s, the World Bank, International Monetary Fund (IMF) and a growing chorus of exasperated aid donors called for stringent economic reform – a dramatic structural adjustment of the economic system. Overlooking their own failing projects, they pointed to a bloated civil service and moribund productive sector, preaching that both needed to be exposed to the fresh, cleansing breezes of the open market. Nyerere resisted the IMF cure. As economic conditions continued to deteriorate, dissension grew within the government ranks. In 1985, Nyerere resigned. In 1986, the Tanzanian government submitted to the IMF terms. The grand Tanzanian experiment with African socialism was over.

As elsewhere on the continent, structural adjustment was a shock treatment that left the nation gasping for air. The civil service was gutted – slashed by over a third. Some of the deadwood was gone, but so were thousands of teachers, healthcare workers and the money for textbooks and chalk and teacher training. ‘For sale’ signs were hung on inefficient government-owned enterprises – bakeries, a cement factory, state-owned farms – as well as vital public services such as the Tanzania Railways Corporation. Many were bought by foreign owners at fire sale prices. Tariffs put up to protect local producers from cheap imports were flattened in accordance with the free trade mantra of the World Bank. The lead on national development policy passed from the Tanzanian government to the donors, with long lists of conditions attached to aid.

The long-term impact of structural adjustment on Tanzania is still hotly debated. Critics argue that many of Tanzania’s ills were due to external factors – the lasting legacy of colonialism, sky-rocketing oil prices in the 1970s and an unfair global economic system. They charge that the IMF’s one-size-fits-all approach to economic reform devastated the national economy and social services. Advocates of structural adjustment argue that without these drastic measures, Tanzania would have been even worse off. They put the blame for Tanzania’s economic decay on flawed domestic policies.

Economic growth rates slipped into the negative around 1974, where they languished for the next 25 years. In 1967, revenue from Tanzania’s exports was sufficient to cover the costs of its necessary imports (oil, machinery, consumer goods). By 1985, earnings from exports covered only a third of its import bill. The government was forced to borrow money to cover the rest, and from the end of the 1970s, Tanzania began to accumulate a crippling burden of debt from which it has yet to escape. Part of this debt is comprised of loans for grand but ultimately unsuccessful development projects it was advised to undertake by its multiplicity of aid donors. In 1997, Tanzania was spending four times as much servicing its external debt than on healthcare, a situation that has improved only slightly in the past decade.

Nyerere’s proudest accomplishment was progress towards universal primary education on his watch. In 1980, 93% of children were in school. However, by 2000, enrolment had fallen to 57%. Access to education is again improving with massive aid-supported investments in basic education over the past decade. Swallowing its objections, the Tanzanian government dutifully continues to take the IMF cure, and is held up as a model of aid-recipient behaviour.

Part of the structural adjustment aid program was the re-introduction of Western-style multiparty democracy in 1992. In the most recent elections in December 2005, Jakaya Mrisho Kikwete was elected president with 80% of the popular vote. Five opposition parties took 43 of 319 seats in the National Assembly.

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Tanzania on the world stage

Throughout the 1960s to 1980s, Nyerere, representing Tanzania, was a voice of moral authority in global forums such as the UN, the Organization of African Unity and the Commonwealth. He asserted the autonomy of ‘Third World’ states, and pressed for a fairer global economic structure.

Nyerere’s government was also a vocal advocate for the liberation of southern Africa from white minority rule. Nyerere told the UN General Assembly in 1961. ‘We who are free have absolutely no right to sit comfortably and counsel patience to those who do not yet enjoy their freedom.’ From 1963, Tanzania provided a base for the South African, Zimbabwean and Mozambican liberation movements within its territory as well as military support, at great cost – both human and material – to itself.

While gratefully accepting Chinese assistance to build the Tazara Railway from Zambia to Dar es Salaam in the 1970s, throughout the Cold War Tanzania remained staunchly nonaligned, resisting the machinations and blandishments of both East and West.

Tanzania has a long history of internal harmony, but it has troublesome neighbours. In 1978 Ugandan dictator Idi Amin ordered his soldiers to invade Tanzania, looting and burning villages along the Kagera River thought to harbour Ugandan rebels. The Tanzanian government responded with a force of 20, 000 Tanzanian soldiers, who joined with Ugandans to topple Amin and restore Milton Obote to power.

Tanzania’s lower profile on the world stage in recent years can be attributed to the passing of the charismatic and revered Nyerere as well as the circumscribed room to manoeuvre afforded the government because of its economic woes and aid dependency. Nevertheless, Tanzania has always opened its doors to civilians fleeing violence in the countries that surrounds it – Uganda, Burundi, Congo and Mozambique. It still hosts more than half a million refugees – more than any other African country. They are mainly from Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo Zaïre, living in camps along Tanzania’s western borders.

The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda was established in 1994, and got to work in Arusha in 1997, employing a local staff of 415. So far, the Tribunal has dealt with 33 cases relating to the 1994 Rwandan genocide – about half of the detainees. It is due to wrap up its work in 2008.

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